Tony Cliff

Lenin 1

Chapter 6
Fighting the Liberals

“When a liberal is abused, he says, ‘Thank God they didn’t beat me.’ When he is beaten, he thanks God they didn’t kill him. When he is killed, he will thank God that his immortal soul has been delivered from its mortal clay.” [1]

ON FEBRUARY 8–9, 1904, a war broke out between Russia and Japan. One reason for this was to enable the government to use war hysteria against revolutionary stirrings. Prime Minister Plehve actually said: “We need a small victorious war to stem the tide of revolution.” [2]

The liberals were very willing to play the Tsarist game. Their immediate reaction was patriotism. In Osvobozhdenie, the paper published abroad by the liberals, Struve, now a liberal stalwart, suggested as a slogan: “Long live the army!” When the Japanese demonstrated their superior fighting ability on both land and sea, the liberals’ patriotism weakened somewhat, and they became mildly oppositional. This attitude sharpened after the Japanese were victorious at the battle of Liaoyang in July, when it became apparent that the Russians were not going to win the war, and that the government was clearly in a blind alley. Now the brave leaders of the gentry and the middle classes showed their mettle. Osvobozhdenie wrote: “The occupation of Manchuria and the outlet to the sea were economically nonsensical for Russia.” [3] Their attitude toward the war became defeatist. Defeat would weaken the Tsar and make the autocracy amenable to compromise. “The Japanese,” said a Russian liberal, “will not enter the Kremlin, but the Russians will.” [4]

Gaining confidence, the liberals started a campaign, using the local organs of self-government, the Zemstvos, as their platform. There they aired their grievances and planned a national conference of Zemstvo delegates. The conference took place in November, and was followed by banquets of liberal landlords, industrialists, professors, lawyers, doctors, economists, etc. Long-winded speeches were made, plans for constitutional reforms were discussed, protests were aired. It is an interesting question whether the aim was to overthrow Tsarism or to strike a bargain with it.

The Mensheviks were enthusiastic about these banquets. Their policy was to call on the workers to back the liberals, bolstering their courage while avoiding any extreme action, in case the liberals took fright.

Thus, on November 1, 1904, the editor of Iskra sent a letter to all party organisations:

In the person of the liberal Zemstvos and Dumas we have to deal with enemies of our enemy, who are not, however, willing or able to go as far in the struggle against him as is required by the interests of the proletariat. But in coming out officially against absolutism and confronting it with demands aimed at its annihilation, by that alone they show themselves to be our allies ... within the limits of the struggle against absolutism, and particularly in its present phase, our attitude towards the liberal bourgeoisie is defined by the task of imbuing it with more courage and impelling it to join in those demands being put forward by the proletariat led by the Social Democracy. [5]

We should be making a fatal mistake if we tried by strong measures of intimidation to force the Zemstvos or other organs of the bourgeois opposition to give here and now, under the influence of panic, a formal promise to present our demands to the government. Such a tactic would discredit the Social Democrats, because it would make our entire political campaign a lever for reaction ...

As regards the present Zemstvos ... our task reduces itself to presenting to them those political demands of the revolutionary proletariat which they must support if they are to have any right to speak in the name of the people and count on the energetic support of the worker masses. [6]

Following up this statement, Axelrod, one of the most important Menshevik leaders, suggested campaign tactics. Efforts must be made

to bring the masses into direct contact with the Zemstvo Assembly, to concentrate the demonstration before the actual premises where the Zemstvo assemblymen are in session. Some of the demonstrators penetrate into the session hall, and at a suitable moment, through the spokesman specially authorised for the purpose, they ask the permission of the Assembly to read out a statement on behalf of the workers. If this is not granted, the spokesman enters a loud protest against the refusal of an Assembly which speaks in the name of the people to hear the voice of the people’s genuine representatives.

The executive committee must take measures in advance to ensure that the appearance of several thousand workers outside the building where the Zemstvo assemblymen are in session, and of several score or hundred in the building itself, shall not plunge the Zemstvoists into panic fear under the impact of which they might throw themselves under the shameful protection of the police and Cossacks, thus transforming a peaceful demonstration into an ugly fight and brutal battering, distorting its whole meaning. [7]

The spokesman of Menshevism, Martynov, in his pamphlet Two Dictatorships (1904), spelled out the reasoning behind this attitude in similar terms:

The coming revolution will be a revolution of the bourgeoisie; and that means that ... it will only, to a greater or lesser extent, secure the rule of all or some of the bourgeois classes ... If this is so, it is clear that the coming revolution can on no account assume political forms against the will of the whole of the bourgeoisie, as the latter will be the master of tomorrow. If so, then to follow the path of simply frightening the majority of the bourgeois elements would mean that the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat could lead to only one result – the restoration of absolutism in its original form.

The revolutionary’s goal, therefore, lay in “the more democratic ‘lower’ section of society’s compelling the ‘higher’ section to agree to lead the bourgeois revolution to its logical conclusion.” [8]

The Menshevik paper Iskra at the time viewed Russian society and the workers’ tasks as follows:

When looking at the arena of struggle in Russia, what do we see? Only two powers: Tsarist autocracy and the liberal bourgeoisie, the latter organised and of tremendous specific weight. The working masses are split and can do nothing; as an independent force we do not exist, and therefore our task consists in the support of the second force – the liberal bourgeoisie; we must encourage it, and on no account frighten it by putting forward the independent demands of the proletariat. [9]

Plekhanov echoed the same idea, writing in 1905:

The sympathy of “society” is very important for us and we can – or more exactly we had many chances to – win it without changing one iota of our program. But of course, it requires tact to make the possibility a reality, and that is what we have not always got.

Then the interests of the liberals would indeed “force” them to “act jointly with the socialists against the government,” because they would cease to meet in revolutionary publications the assurance that the overthrow of absolutism would be the signal for a social revolution in Russia. [10]

Hardly an article came from Plekhanov’s pen that did not belabour the Bolsheviks for their tactlessness. Indeed, he wrote a whole series of articles collectively entitled Letters on Tactics and Tactlessness. [11]

In complete contrast, Lenin always relentlessly denounced the Russian liberal bourgeoisie as a counterrevolutionary force. Of Martynov’s campaign tactics for the Zemstvo Assembly, he wrote contemptuously in November 1904:

A fine definition of the tasks of the workers’ party, I must say! At a time when an alliance of the moderate Zemstvoists and the government to fight the revolutionary proletariat is only too clearly possible and probable ... we are to “reduce” our task, not to redoubling our efforts in the struggle against the government, but to drawing up casuistic conditions for agreements with the liberals on mutual support. [12]

If we are in a position to organise an imposing mass demonstration of workers in the hall of a Zemstvo Assembly, we shall, of course, do so (though if we have forces enough for a mass demonstration it would be much better to “concentrate” them “before the premises” not of the Zemstvo, but of the police, the gendarmerie, or the censorship). But to be swayed when doing so by considerations like the Zemstvoists panic fears, and to engage in negotiations on that score, would be the height of ineptitude, and height of absurdity ... [13]

What is needed here is not “negotiations,” but the actual mustering of force; not pressure on the Zemstvoists, but pressure on the government and its agents. [14]

He pulled no punches in his outspoken analysis of the reasons why the liberals would prove to be reactionary.

The antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie with us is much deeper than it was in 1789, 1848 or 1871; hence, the bourgeoisie will be more fearful of the proletarian revolution and will throw itself more readily into the arms of reaction. [15]

The bourgeoisie as a whole is incapable of waging a determined struggle against the autocracy; it fears to lose in this struggle its property which binds it to the existing order; it fears an all-too-revolutionary action of the workers, who will not stop at the democratic revolution but will aspire to the socialist revolution; it fears a complete break with officialdom, with the bureaucracy, whose interests are bound up by a thousand ties with the interests of the propertied classes. For this reason the bourgeois struggle for liberty is notoriously timorous, inconsistent, and half-hearted. [16]

The Constituent Assembly of the whole people will be just strong enough to make the Tsar grant a constitution, but it will not and must not (from the point of view of the bourgeoisie’s interests) be any stronger. It must only counterbalance the monarchy, but not overthrow it; it must leave the material instruments of power (the army, etc.) in the hands of the monarchy. [17]

The experience of the 1905 Revolution demonstrated even more clearly the bankruptcy of the liberal bourgeoisie, particularly on the question that was crucial for the overwhelming majority of the Russian population: the agrarian question. The liberals were against expropriating the great landowners. Their party, the Cadets, supported the distribution of the crown and monastery lands among the peasants, but agreed to the compulsory expropriation of the landlords’ estates only on condition that fair prices were paid to the landlords. [18]

The Cadets were, in fact, largely representatives of the landlord class. Lenin cited evidence for this: The Cadets were a party of the liberal bourgeoisie, liberal landowners, and bourgeois intelligentsia. If there were any doubts about the landowner colouring of the Cadets, two facts could be pointed to: (1) the composition of the Cadet group in the first Duma, and (2) the Cadets’ draft agrarian program. [19] On the first point, the facts were as follows:

of the 153 Cadets in the first Duma, 92 were of the nobility. Of these, three owned landed estates between 5,000 and 10,000 desiatins [1*]; eight owned estates from 2,000 to 5,000 desiatins; eight owned estates from 1,000 to 2,000 desiatins; and 30 owned estates from 500 to 1,000 desiatins. Thus about one-third of the Cadet deputies were big landowners. [20]

Of the agrarian program of the Cadets, Lenin said:

[It] is in effect, a plan of the capitalist landlord, conversion of the peasant into a Knecht, and the formation of local land commissions of equal numbers of landlords and peasants with chairmen appointed by the government – all this shows as clearly as can be that Cadet policy in the agrarian question is one of retaining landed proprietorship by cleansing it of some of its feudal traits, and by the peasant’s ruination through redemption payments and his shackling by government officials. [21]

Stolypin [2*] and the Cadets disagreed on the extent of the concessions and on the means (crude or more sophisticated) by which reform should be introduced. Both supported the reform, that is, they supported the preservation of landlord domination through concessions to the peasants. [22]

A couple of years later, n March 1908, Lenin argued, in an article entitled On the ‘Nature’ of the Russian Revolution, that experience had demonstrated the counterrevolutionary nature of the liberals’ attitude to the peasant question:

At the beginning of 1906, prior to the first Duma, the Cadet leader, Mr. Struve, wrote: “The peasant in the Duma will be a Cadet” ... The monarchist paper proclaimed, “the muzhik will help us out,” i.e., that broad representation of the peasants would prove favourable for the autocracy. Such opinions were ... widespread in those days ... But the first Duma had dispelled these illusions of the monarchists and the illusions of the liberals completely. The most ignorant, undeveloped, politically virgin, unorganised muzhik proved to be incomparably more left than the Cadets. [23]

He concluded:

And the whole historic significance of the first period of the Russian Revolution may be summed up as follows: Liberalism has already conclusively demonstrated its counterrevolutionary nature, its incapacity to lead the peasant revolution; the peasantry has not yet fully understood that it is only along the path of revolution and republic, under the guidance of the socialist proletariat, that a real victory can be won. [24]



Liberalism shows its true colours

During the 1905 Revolution, the political course steered by the liberals was an erratic one. They advanced and retreated, their revolutionary ardour cooling as the revolution advanced, drawing millions of workers and peasants into political and social struggle.

At the beginning of the revolution, Struve wrote: “Every sincere and thinking liberal in Russia demands revolution.” [25] His Cadet Party, and indeed the majority of employers, were sympathetic even to the revolutionary general strike, which the workers used as a weapon against Tsarism. Khrustalev-Nosar, then president of the Petrograd Soviet, wrote:

During the October strike, the employers, not content with putting no obstacle in the way of workers’ meetings at the factories, paid 50 per cent wages for the time of the strike; in some of the factories full wages were even paid. No one was sacked for the strike. At the Putilov works and elsewhere the management paid full wages to the delegates for the days they assisted at the meetings of the Soviet. The management of the Putilov works was so considerate as to place its steamer at the disposal of the Soviet delegates when they went to town. [26]

The editor of Pravo, the principal organ of those who soon afterwards formed the Cadet Party, declared: “The first strike will forever remain a glorious page in the history of the liberation movement, a monument to the great services of the working class in the struggle for the political and social emancipation of the people.” [27] In the same vein, a resolution of the founding congress of the Cadets declared:

The demands of the strikers, as they have been formulated by themselves, are mainly confined to the immediate introduction of the basic liberties, the free election of representatives of the people to a constituent assembly on the basis of universal, equal, direct and secret ballot; and of general political amnesty. There is not the slightest doubt that these demands are identical with those of the Constitutional Democratic (Cadet) Party. In view of this identity of aims the constituent congress of the Constitutional Democratic Party considers it its duty to express its complete solidarity with the strike movement. At their own place and with the aid of methods accessible to this party, its members strive to attain the same ends. Like the other groups taking part in the struggle we emphatically reject the idea of attaining our object by means of negotiations with the government. [28]

But this sympathy for the revolutionary workers evaporated quickly. It soon became clear that a separation could not be made between the anti-Tsarist demands of the workers and their struggle to improve their conditions of life in opposition to the interests of the employers. The workers who took part in the general strike against the Tsar in October 1905 gained so much confidence in their own power that, a month later, the most advanced section of them, the workers of St. Petersburg, came out on strike demanding an eight-hour day. This clearly threatened the employers’ pockets, and they reacted immediately. The striking workers were ruthlessly locked out. In November, in St. Petersburg, 72 factories, with 110,000 workers, were closed; in Moscow, 23 factories with 58,634 workers; in other cities, the picture was similar. [29] (Badly organised, the workers were defeated in this clash with the capitalists, their former anti-Tsarist allies.)

All the bourgeois politicians now showed their animosity toward the workers and fear of strikes. Where formerly the strike was commended, it was now called by the Cadet leader Miliukov “a crime, a crime against the revolution.” [30]

Struve, who at the beginning of 1905 had urged on the revolution, now wrote: “The pernicious anarchy of the Russian revolution is shown most clearly in the fact that it much more disorganises than organises the country, as well as itself.” [31] The bourgeoisie thus turned out to be much more afraid of the revolutionary workers than of counterrevolutionary Tsarism.

Because the Cadets opposed the revolutionary struggle, their attempt to solve the burning question of the time – the land question – came to nothing. In March 1905, Struve wrote:

The Russian opposition, being not only democratic, but also moderate-constitutional, must at the present time take as its point of departure the fact that the agrarian revolution has already begun in the country. If so, the only intelligent tactic, from all points of view, is to seize hold of the revolution from its beginning and, recognising the just nature of this revolution, direct it into the channel of lawful social reform. [32]

The programme adopted at the founding congress of the Cadet Party included a demand for a Constituent Assembly (Article 13), and the monarchy was not mentioned at all. But the January 1906 congress changed Article 13, replacing it with a demand for a “constitutional and parliamentary monarchy.” The Cadets proved, as Lenin had foretold, not to be made of the same stuff as Robespierre and the Jacobins, or Cromwell and his Ironsides.



In conclusion

Lenin’s hatred of the liberals had been seared into his very soul by the experience of his youth. Krupskaya relates:

Vladimir Ilyich once told me about the attitude of the liberals towards the arrest of his elder brother. All acquaintances shunned the Ulyanov family. Even an aged teacher, who had formerly come every evening to play chess, left off calling. There was no railway at Simbirsk at that time, and Vladimir Ilyich’s mother had to go on horseback to Syzran in order to go on to St. Petersburg, where her eldest son was imprisoned. Vladimir Ilyich was sent to seek a companion for the journey. But no one wanted to travel with the mother of an arrested man. Vladimir Ilyich told me that this widespread cowardice made a very profound impression upon him at that time. This youthful experience undoubtedly did leave its imprint on Lenin’s attitude towards the liberals. It was early that he learned the value of all liberal chatter. [33]

Nor did Lenin forget how the great revolutionary Chernyshevsky in his time had been disgusted by the liberals. Chernyshevsky spoke of the liberals of the sixties as “windbags, braggarts and fools”. He clearly perceived their dread of revolution, their spinelessness, and their servility in the face of Tsarism.



1*. Desiatin = 2.7 acres.

2*. The Tsarist prime minister, Stolypin’s chief claim to fame was the law of November 1906, the main product of the victorious counterrevolution. The law gave a small minority of the peasants of any commune, even against the will of the majority, the right to detach from the communal land a section to be owned independently. Stolypin described his policy as “banking on the strong ones,” i.e., relying on the rich peasant to join forces with the great landlords and the autocracy. “The natural counterweight to the communal principle,” Stolypin said, “is individual ownership. The small owner is the nucleus on which rests all stable order in the state.” The aim of Stolypin’s agrarian legislation was to turn the kulaks into a new source of social support for the autocracy in the countryside, while preserving the landed estates and forcibly destroying the village communes.




1. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.11, p.385.

2. D.J. Dallin, The Rise of Russia in Asia, London 1950, p.79.

3. ibid., p.81.

4. Quoted in B. Pares, A History of Russia, London 1937, p.428.

5. Dan, op. cit., p.297.

6. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.7, pp.501-02.

7. ibid., pp.509–10.

8. A. Martynov, Dve Diktatury, Geneva 1904, pp.57-58.

9. Quoted by G. Zinoviev, Istoriia Rossisskoi Kommunisticheskoi Partii (Boishevikov), Moscow-Leningrad 1923, p.158.

10. Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, op. cit., p.116.

11. Plekhanov, Sochineniia, vol.15.

12. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.7, p.507,

13. ibid., p.511

14. ibid., p.512.

15. ibid., vol.8, p.258.

16. ibid., pp.511-12.

17. ibid., p.492.

18. See D.P. Dolgorukov and I.I. Petrunkevich, eds., Agrarnii vopros, Moscow 1905, a collection of articles on the land question, especially M.Ia. Gertsenshtein, Land nationalization.

19. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.12, p.191.

20. ibid., p.532.

21. ibid., p.191.

22. ibid., p.257.

23. ibid., p.22.

24. ibid., vol.15, p.25.

25. Pokrovsky, op. cit., vol.2, p.148.

26. ibid., p.181.

27. ibid., p.181.

28. ibid., p.246.

29. S.E. Sef, Burzhuaziia v 1905 godu, Moscow-Leningrad 1926, p.82.

30. P.N. Miliukov, God borbi. Publitsisticheskaia Khronika, 1905–06, St. Petersburg 1907, p.171.

31. Quoted by Sef, op. cit., p.109.

32. ibid., p.101.

33. Krupskaya, op. cit., p.17.


Last updated on 20.1.2004